Putin has moved more than 90,000 troops to the borders of Ukraine, the former Soviet republic he invaded in 2014 to seize the Crimean peninsula. The danger of a full-scale invasion has thrown the United States and its allies into crisis-prevention mode.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III hosted Ukraine’s defense minister at the Pentagon last month and delivered Coast Guard cutters to Kyiv’s navy. British officials said they were preparing 600 troops for deployment to Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron said his country would “defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”
But they all stopped conspicuously short of saying they were willing to go to war for Ukraine — because they aren’t.
Putin, by contrast, sees Kyiv’s alignment with the West as a direct threat.
He has often said Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and that the two countries should be close partners if not actually rejoined.
To Putin, NATO advisers and equipment are gradually transforming Ukraine into a de facto satellite of the Western alliance. Russia experts believe he probably doesn’t want to invade all of Ukraine so much as he wants to stop the country’s westward drift.
“He’s testing us,” Fiona Hill, a National Security Council official during the Trump administration, said. “He’s waiting to see how everyone reacts. If there’s a strong enough reaction, he may back off. The softer our response, the more likely he will go.”
So the United States and its allies are trying to deter Putin from going to war, sending warnings about the consequences of an invasion. What they need most is to reach and make public a consensus on specific sanctions they would apply in the event of Russian military action.
A second useful step would be an offer from Biden to talk the problem out; Putin likes being taken seriously as the leader of a superpower.
The president shouldn’t accede to Putin’s demands that Western countries limit military aid to Kyiv, but he can make it clear that the assistance is solely for defensive purposes.
One more step: Senate Republicans should lift their blockade on Biden’s nominees as ambassadors. The United States has no ambassador in Poland, France or Germany because Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri have blocked confirmations. There hasn’t been an ambassador in Ukraine since President Donald Trump fired Marie Yovanovitch in 2019.
“We can’t put pressure on our counterparts in a crisis if we don’t have an ambassador,” Hill said.
There’s a broader lesson for the president and his aides here: The United States is still the only superpower with interests, influence and allies in every corner of the world. They don’t have the luxury of choosing where the next crisis will come. One test of a great power is whether its leaders can walk and chew gum at the same time.